As if the stationary restaurant business weren’t tumultuous enough with its high overhead costs, perishable products, and unpredictable customers, food truck owners kick it up a degree by taking it to the streets and exposing themselves — and their kitchens — to the elements.
What got you into the business?
“Insanity,” says Mike Foley of Foley’s Franks.
Foley parks his truck in leased space along Route 5 near the Easthampton-Northampton line seven days a week for lunch and dinner. He’s “entertaining” the idea of serving breakfast. He also sells burgers and kielbasa.
“When the weather’s good you gotta strike. There’ve been days I’ve only sold one hot dog. It goes up and down.”
“I’ll be here until I hit the lottery,” Foley says with a smile.
Food trucks have slowly been motoring into the Valley over the past five years or so. You can usually spot them in Amherst, Holyoke, Springfield, and if you keep a sharp eye out, Northampton. They serve a variety of foods drawing influence from Korean, Thai, American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican cuisine. Food truck chefs are, however, united by seemingly necessary traits: big personalities, flair for comfort foods, and a love of chatting up customers.
But not every street is welcoming to food trucks. Brick and mortar restaurant owners in Amherst and Northampton fought to keep food trucks out of their downtown areas — and won — while people in Holyoke and Springfield have been more excited to see the business expand. In Amherst, food trucks are not allowed in downtown proper, but can park over near Amherst Common. In Northampton, food trucks are not permitted within the Central Business District, which is pretty expansive — it runs from Holyoke Street on the Pleasant Street side to North Street on the King Street Side, to West Street on the west side, and to Hawley Street on the east side. In Holyoke and Springfield, licensed food trucks can park most anywhere.
Whatever the case, this brand of proprietor isn’t the type to give up easily. They are people who love food, and they’re people who love people. Their personalities are too big too contain in the back of a restaurant. In a food truck, they get the best of both worlds of pro cooking — they get to cook and they get to interact with the people for whom they’re cooking.
After 27 years in the catering business, Betsy and Jimmy Tarr, both 65, decided it was time to simplify. They were tired of lugging around all the dishes, silverware, etc., and wanted a no-frills approach to serving food. So Bistro Bus was born.
Serving a mix of Asian fusion and classic American street foods, the Bistro Bus can be seen in Florence and near the Clarion Hotel in Northampton Tuesday through Thursday.
“It’s more fun and it’s a little easier [than catering],” says Jimmy Tarr of the food truck business. “It’s more social.”
Tarr says their most popular item is an Asian-fusion taco — served with choice of pulled pork, chicken, or tofu with bean sprouts, Thai slaw, and chili mayo. The Bistro Bus menu also boasts a grilled cheese with BBQ pulled pork and caramelized onions, an Asian chicken sandwich with Thai slaw and peanut sauce, and sesame noodles with julienned veggies. Everything on the menu costs $7.50.
To prepare for service, Tarr says he rents space in a commercial kitchen for $100 a week, which is “pretty darn fair.” Shopping around for kitchen space, he says, led him to some people charging $60 an hour. “You’d have to sell a lot of $7 sandwiches to cover that.”
He and his wife prep for service on Mondays and hit the streets of Northampton — steering clear of downtown, of course — Tuesday through Thursday. They save the weekends for private events and fairs.
“We don’t want to step on toes,” Tarr says, sympathizing with restaurant owners in Northampton who pay high downtown rents. “It’s hard enough to make it when you have a huge fixed cost.”
Tarr may not have the fixed cost of a stationary restaurant — aside from the $400 a month for the kitchen and monthly insurance fees — but he says he and his wife face a lot of regular fees they weren’t expecting on top of the $35,000 they paid — out of their retirement fund — for the truck and build-out. For example, the fire suppression system, he says — required by Massachusetts but not neighboring Connecticut — costs $1,500 and must be inspected twice annually at $250 a pop.
“It kind of comes up around the corner and slaps you in the face,” he says. “It’s a costly little operation. We found there were lots of fees we weren’t aware of.”
In the past three seasons, Tarr says, he and Betsy haven’t been able to make back their start-up costs. He says they average $350 a day in sales on the streets. Working events, he says, is more profitable, though some are riskier than others. During the fireworks at Look Park last summer, for example, the park took 15 percent of their gross profits for the day, which, he says, is better than paying a flat fee. Tarr says he’s also participating in the upcoming food truck festival taking place at the Northampton Three County Fair June 6 and 7. He’s hopeful the weekend will be profitable, though he says that the organizers, CTInsider, are charging a flat $500 for participating food trucks. The investment, he says, feels “steep.” (Update: On the afternoon of June 1 — after this story ran in our pages — the Massachusetts Food Truck Festival’s Facebook page manager posted that the event will be moved to Aug. 15 and 16 to allow more time for out-of-state food trucks to meet Massachusetts regulations.)
As for the winter, Tarr says his and Betsy’s prior careers in traditional catering and real estate — both heavily impacted by the seasons — taught them to squirrel money away for the winter. He says they hustle when the weather is warm and once the snow hits they spend time with their grandchildren and rely on what they’ve put away. Tarr is realistic about their future in the business.
“This is not something you get rich at,” says Tarr. “We’re old hippies. I don’t intend to run a fleet of food trucks.”
Wheelhouse is new to the local food truck scene. The truck rolled out for the first time on May 2. It was started by Brookfield Farm apprentices Jake Mazar, Will VanHeuvelen, and Zoe Abram. The trio got the money to start up their food truck through a Kickstarter campaign over the winter. They raised nearly $21,000 from 285 backers. Wheelhouse is open two days a week — at the Amherst Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and the Forest Park Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays.
Three hands make for light work. Mazar runs the business end of things, VanHeuvelen runs the culinary side, and Abram handles the farming and scheduling.
Mazar says they’re growing some of the food themselves — tomatillos, cilantro, and parsley — and getting the rest from other local farmers, such as Kitchen Garden Farm, Book&Plow, Adams, and Red Fire Farm. He says they’re simultaneously starting their own farm while operating a small plot within Brookfield Farm in Amherst.
The trio found their truck on Craigslist and spent about $15,000 on the overhaul. Taking a tip from Mazar’s eating habits, the menu is gluten-free and is based on their efforts to be inclusive of dietary restrictions, “farm-based and seasonal.” Mazar says they use local meat — they get their chicken from Diemand Farm in Wendell — and make everything from scratch. Their best-selling item so far has been a pulled chicken arepa with slaw and garlic sauce. (An arepa is a Venezuelan-style cornmeal pocket sandwich.) They also have design-your-own rice bowls and a menu item called the “Gladly Hadley,” which is roasted Hadley asparagus and melted cheese. Their price range is $6-8.
“Part of being farm-based is really trying to highlight the healthy bounty that grows all around us in the Valley,” says Mazar.
In Springfield, licensed food trucks are welcome in the downtown area any day of the week if they’re parked in legal spots and, if in a metered zone, they pay for however many meters they’re using. Ramon DeJesus, who speaks very little English, sells Dominican food out of a no-frills truck on the corner of Main and Loring streets. Friend, Franklin Matos, helps out, serving fried delights out of the unnamed truck’s window. Carne frita, tostones, orejita, cuajito, papita, alcapurria, empanadilla — all cooked inside the truck. No prices are listed. The running truck sounds like a jackhammer, but the customers don’t seem to mind. The smell of fried deliciousness wafts out of the window.
“Food’s bangin’,” says Justin Morales as he walks away with an empanada that cost him $1.50.
Sun Kim, owner of the food truck Sun Kim Bop, parks in the Tower Square area of Main Street in Springfield on most weekdays. Kim, from Seoul, specializes in Korean street food.
“Their dumplings are the best,” says Hugh Heisler, who was visiting the truck last week on his lunch break.
Bop, Kim says, is cooked rice molded into a bun and grilled. Her Bop Burger is made in this fashion — a seasoned rice bun with dry seaweed sprinkles, sauteed kimchi, and pork, beef, or chicken in between. I visited the food truck at around 1:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, and the daily special was already sold out — a Bibim Bop bowl — which has meat, veggies, and noodles.
Kim says she learned to cook from her mother. “All Korean moms are good cooks,” she laughs. Kim says she started Sun Kim Bop because her three children are all grown and are increasingly independent, so she decided she needed something else to fill her time.
“I thought about what I could be good at,” Kim says. “I know Korean food. I know Korean flavor.”
Kim says it hasn’t seemed worth it to be in Northampton because she can’t go downtown, and she stopped going to Amherst because she wasn’t getting enough business there.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and his administration have been vocal about wanting to draw more food businesses into the city. Chief of Staff Rorey Casey says they’re working to streamline the application process to allow for more food trucks.
“We don’t want it to be cumbersome,” he says.
Ron Mckeithen tries to get the best of everything by parking his Smokin’ Caboose right on the town line between Holyoke and Easthampton — along Route 5, just a couple of miles from Northampton. Mckeitehen, from Texas, has been in the food truck business for 15 years — eight in the Valley and before that in Gloucester. He used to work for Coca-Cola, which is what originally brought him to the area.
Everything — down to the caboose-shaped cart he hitches to his pick-up truck — Mckeithen made from scratch. He smokes his own meats in a black tank attached to the front end of his caboose. The smell of mesquite hangs heavy in the hot summer air.
Mckeithen says he learned to grill in Texas, where he says grilling is a competitive thing. He says he was always participating in grill-offs, even if it was between just a couple of friends. The call of the grill was strong.
“I still had that yearning after coming up north,” says Mckeithen. “It’s a labor of love.”
A quarter rack of barbecued ribs sells for $9, a pulled pork sandwich for $8, and a bowl of chili is $5. Mckeithen also sells chili dogs and Italian sausage. Everything is “Guaranteed Delicious!!” according to the menu.
“My smoking, that’s number one,” he says. “I want [customers] to be sure it’s done right, that they know where I’m coming from.”
Is it hot in there, I ask as I melt in the sun and the 90-degree heat. He stands inches away from the smoker, which bears the sign,“No Trespassing. Hot! Hot! Hot!”
“I’m from Texas,” Mckeithen says with a smile. “I have a good fan.”•
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.